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NM: I don't think this word has been mentioned here yet, but it sounds to me that these wines, in their intent and accomplishment, are very terroir-driven wines.
TM: Absolutely! They have to be.
PR: That is our pure intent.
TM: It has to be about this place, otherwise I don't know what the point of making a wine is.
PR: I just feel my energy level rise up as I hear you say that! Answering your earlier question, personally that's what I'm passionate about: terroir is the only word we really have for it right now.
NM: It seems to be a given for you to make wines that are a full expression of the land and which show the highest fidelity for the message it wants to convey. But let's be honest: there is a number of producers out there whose philosophy is very different — one that actively encourages a great deal of manipulation, even coercion, in winemaking. What is your opinion on that, in general, and how does that interface with your own philosophy? After all, you must increasingly feel that you're… different.
PR: Excellent question. Let me use the example of Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco. I tend to be the one who has 'the read' on the perception of our wines. John Lancaster, the sommelier at Boulevard — great guy, very opinionated, very blunt, very quick in his decisions — the world is coming to him, trying to sell him wine every day. I'm sure he has 20-30 voicemails a day from producers trying to sell him wines. Ariel and I had been calling on John for three years with Rubissow-Sargent. I remember presenting him this '99 Cabernet: "Peter, great to see you; look forward to seeing you again; not what I'm looking for." We got that year after year with Rubissow-Sargent. And he's such a great person that he understood that while this [wine] wasn't his preference, he enjoyed having us in the restaurant. Then, Tim and I met him just a few months ago, [once he had time to try the new releases under the new label], and he was like, "Hmmm, these are all great! These are superb! Which one should I get?" He found them to be very good, across the board. And not to sound cocky, but I think we knew that ourselves.
But this answers your question earlier as to how we were perceived: in San Francisco, we were very much perceived as a Bordeaux [style] house; it's hard for us to sell wine here. Now, in New York, that worked in our favor: all the top sommeliers in New York [knew our wines] and we were in all the best restaurants. Le Bernardin poured our wines by the glass for about two years — they loved that there was this Napa winery doing this [restrained Bordeaux style]. Whereas here, I think we were perceived as being pretentious and inauthentic…
AR: We were [perceived as] doing 'the French thing,' as with the French name [of our proprietary blend] Les Trompettes. "Why can't you just be Californian?!"
PR: … Well, after years of hearing it, that got through to me. But I have so much respect [for the style of the '99 Cabernet]. For me — and this isn't just the salesman talking — I think this is a beautiful wine; it's just so subtle and the fruit is so gentle. This is Tony Sargent's style, personified. So, in terms of what's next, I think that people still think all that about us, especially relative to Oakville or Spring Mountain or any of those areas where they get higher degree days than we do and the grapes can get a little riper, plumper, and juicier than we can get. But Tim has done an extraordinary job, with Ariel and Ramon, of getting as much ripeness as we can out of this vineyard without going into what I call 'brown' flavors. And we really don't want to have brown, port-like wine here — [that style is inappropriate for food, and] restaurants are the core of our business. There's still a perception that Rubissow-Sargent is in the Bordeaux style. I'm okay with that, but I don't talk about it anymore. What do you think?
NM: Well, this is the first Rubissow-Sargent wine — from the 'old guard,' I guess you'd call it — that I've tasted. Everything is relative. Yes, compared to the current wines, [the pre-2004 style] is definitely much more austere, subtle, delicate. But again, everything is relative: I still think your new style under the 'new guard' is, compared to a number of other Napa producers, made in a subtler style. We don't have to have one extreme or another; a wine doesn't have to be either reticent and constrained or overblown and obnoxious. And I think that's what you're achieving with this new style. I'm guessing because I don't know a whole lot about the terroir, but these don't seem forced or, in any obvious way, manipulated — though there's a number of other Napa wines, well above the price points of yours, that are!